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Pride in our property


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 30, 2000

Editor's note: Welcome to the St. Petersburg Times' Newspaper in Education page! This year's series is about something we all love and wish we had more of: money. Throughout the school year in this space you will find fun and informational stories about how to earn, keep and save money. Developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education, the series explores such topics as personal finance, business etiquette and ethics, making decisions, managing your time and money and more, all geared toward you, not just your parents! We hope you enjoy this economic adventure.

Business Basics Chapter Three

Do you ever wonder why people say one thing and do another? For example, people say they want clean air, water and a healthy environment, but they do things instead that pollute, litter and waste resources.

The "tragedy of the commons" goes a long way to explain this contradiction. Tragedy of the commons could be the title of a Greek play or Shakespearean drama, but it is also another sad story: the devastation to publicly owned property because no one takes personal responsibility for something that belongs to everyone. Do you really want to spend every Saturday cleaning up your neighborhood park if all your neighbors do is use it?


Economists are social scientists who study human behavior when confronted with the problem of limited resources and unlimited wants. The production, distribution and consumption of goods and services is not a simple task because of the problem of scarcity. Therefore, economists theorize about the ways people go about allocating limited resources of land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship.

Because people act in a rational way most of the time, behavior is somewhat predictable. Long ago, about 300 B.C., Greek philosopher Aristotle made some conclusions about property that was owned collectively compared with property that was owned privately. His conclusions explain why your bathroom at home is better cared for than the restrooms at school, why school textbooks have torn and scribbled pages but your personal library is undamaged. Private ownership encourages owners to better care for their property to ensure continued value. Also, people experience a sense of pride associated with possessions. Caretaking does not usually accompany common property, whether that property is land or objects.

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin named this concept "tragedy of the commons" in an article that appeared in Science magazine. The example he used was the destructive use of publicly owned grazing land. Individuals continued to bring cattle to the public grazing area even though the land was overgrazed, because there was no incentive not to do so. Individual herdsmen incurred no costs regardless of the number of livestock in their herds. Eventually, the land became so overgrazed it lost its value. Had those using the grazing area been assigned a section or charged for use according to herd population, then market controls would have preserved the grazing land.

In our own economy, we have many examples of "commons" such as public parks, lakes, wildlife, rivers, oceans, public forests, highways and public schools. The important question we have to answer in relation to these commons is: How do we protect them? One way we have historically protected the commons is by government regulation, and a more recent method of protection is the use of free market methods and privatization.

We in the United States take pride in the eagle, a symbol of strength and independence. However, several years ago bald eagles were near extinction. To deal with this situation, largely caused by the use of the chemical DDT, the U.S. government banned any further use of the substance. Other rules, such as banning residential or business development near eagle nests, were put in place. As a result, the bald eagle is now considered threatened, not endangered.

Elephants have faced much the same situation in various African nations. Once thought to be in danger of extinction and considered to be nothing more than destructive "large gray mice" to village gardens, these animals now thrive in some parts of the continent. The reason for this turn-around was privatizing of the elephants -- that is, giving ownership of elephants to various villages. Once the villagers realized they could make money off the elephants through photo safaris, they realized they owned a valuable resource that should be protected. The villagers began to self-police against poachers wanting to kill the elephants for their ivory, and the elephant herds are now growing. In this case, villagers were given an incentive to keep the elephants alive so that they could make money off them. Previously, no incentive existed to cause the villagers to look kindly on the elephants.

Try it out

You can do a classroom experiment to test the effectiveness of the free-market solution. Gather six students around an overhead projector, and draw a transparency with a grid of six squares. A paper clip should be placed inside each grid, and one paper clip placed on one of the grid lines. Tell the students that each paper clip represents a fish and that they are all commercial fishers. They are going to have two opportunities to fish, each round one minute each. Then tell them they will get a reward ($1 or a candy bar) for each fish they take in round one; and during round 2 they will each get a reward of ($2 or 2 candy bars) for each fish they take during this round. Begin round one. Debrief. What happened? Were all the fish taken? Why? Why were none left for round 2?

Now, restate the rules for a new round of fishing. This time there are the same number of fish, one per square and one on one of the grid lines, but each person is assigned a grid as his or her own area to fish. If anyone takes another's fish, they will get fined and have to replace the fish that is not theirs. Offer the same rewards as in the first round of fishing. What will happen this time? How was it different? What happened to the fish on the grid line? Was it the only one taken in the first round? Why? What was the effect of taking a resource that was initially owned in common and making it a private resource? How did the incentives change in this round versus the initial round of fishing?

Now, apply this same understanding to the following situations and see if solutions can be developed:

n Why do we have more chickens than pheasants?

n Why do students treat the school cafeteria differently from their dining area at home?

n Why is Disney World cleaner than our public parks?

n Why do we have more buffalo today than 50 years ago?


Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1939.

Hardin, Garrett, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 1968.

Kreuter, Urs, and Randy T. Simmons, Who Owns the Elephants? In Wildlife, in the Marketplace, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 1995.

Schug, Mark C., John S. Morton, and Donald R. Wentworth, Economics and the Environment: EcoDetective, National Council on Economic Education, New York, 1995.

* * *

-- Barbara Tranquilla is a longtime teacher of economics in the Dade County public school system. She has won numerous state and national economics teaching awards and in 1995 was the first to be named Florida Economics Educator of the Year by the Florida Council on Economic Education.

About the Florida Council on Economic Education

Money Stuff was developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education and project director Fonda Anderson. The council is a statewide non-profit organization founded in 1975 to educate K-12 teachers and students about the free enterprise system and to instill in them an appreciation for a market economy. For more information on the council's programs for teachers and students, please call (813) 289-8489.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8969. For past chapters on finance, and business etiquette and ethics, check out and click on Money Stuff.

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